The author died while on assignment for the New York Times in Syria on February 16. The following account of the January 2005 Iraqi elections, taken from his book Night Draws Near, published in August of that year, shows his characteristically acute observations about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East, while conveying his own hopes and foreboding about Iraq’s future.
Baghdad—a city that always chooses memory over the curse of its reality—passed before me once more. The elegant statues of Mohammed Ghani, artifacts of an ageless city, still graced their pedestals. Ghani’s Hying carpet fluttered into the boundless sky. Down the street was Shehrazad, with her flowing hair and dress, still perched over the Tigris like a lonesome sentry. A walk away was Kahramana, confidently pouring oil on the forty thieves in Ali Baba Square. Yet these reminders of the past paled against the sights of the present: the barbed wire and concrete barricades of the siege; other statues, once heroic, now dismantled; the buildings damaged in the looting that had gripped the city during those first anarchic days of freedom.
The war’s shadow still lay over Baghdad, and the threat of horrific violence never seemed to dissipate. Into the streets spilled rubble, the work of bombing during the U.S. invasion, while nests of steel rods, slabs of concrete, and twisted girders marked the sites of car bombs. The overall effect was one of devastation, despite the buoyant election hopes in some quarters. The city, unfolding before us, still rested on a precipice. As usual it felt like autumn in Baghdad, and the hour was always dusk….
The future was being decided on January 30, 2005, when Iraqis voted in the country’s first election in a half century. For weeks after my return, the city and other parts of Iraq had been silenced by terror; in Baghdad and its environs, citizens were reeling from constant violence that seemed to escalate in savagery with each new assault. Stretches of the country, particularly in the north and west, were only nominally under the government’s control; in Baghdad itself, insurgents swaggered with their rifles down Haifa Street, a short way from the very headquarters of the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy. The violence was awful, even by Iraq’s standards: brazen executions in the street, and beheadings so common they had become mundane. Hardly a day went by without a half-dozen bombs going off across the country, borne by cars and men. In the week before ballots were cast, still shadowy insurgents handed out leaflets that warned they would “wash the streets” with the blood of those who dared to vote.
On the day before the vote, the city crackling with the same anticipation I had remembered before the American invasion, I came across a man named Yahya Sadiq, a squat fellow with a mournful look. Just before our meeting, a car bomb had detonated along the street near where he sold firewood in Dora, a neighborhood so dangerous many Iraqis had long preferred to simply avoid it. The driver was killed in the bombing, as were four civilians. Four other people were wounded. The Interior Ministry had its verdict on the driver: “He went to hell, to what he deserves,” said Colonel Adnan Abdul-Rahman, a ministry spokesman. The thirty-year-old Sadiq, looking down, had his: “Baghdad is not safe.”…
The next day, something startling happened. Fear, for a moment, receded. On the following morning, with U.S. forces largely in the background, tens of thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers fanned out over towns and cities throughout the country. For the first time since the war began nearly two years earlier, residents of Baghdad saw Iraqi armor in the streets—personnel carriers and Soviet-built T-55 tanks that were leftovers from the dissolved Iraqi army. Across the capital, roads, squares, and bridges were barricaded and manned by U.S. and Iraqi troops, a presence some residents ruefully noted would have probably stopped the looting after Saddam’s fall. Police pickups, their sirens blaring, plied abandoned streets where children set up soccer goals with piles of shoes.
Baghdad, overnight, was transformed: for the first time since the fall of Saddam in April 2003, the capital—and some other parts of Iraq—took on the air of a festival, as crowds danced, chanted, and strolled down streets made safe by the most thorough security crackdown in memory. Into those streets, from the Kurdish north to the largely Shiite south, voters ventured outdoors and, at thousands of polling stations, delivered a message: it was time to seize their future and reject a legacy of dictatorship and the bloodshed and hardship that had followed the American invasion.
In Baghdad, lines at polling stations started small in a tentative morning, then grew through the election’s ten hours, sometimes dramatically, surprising even the Iraqis, who said they were emboldened by the crowds before them. Afterward, many triumphantly pointed their index fingers, stained with deep blue ink from the polls, and hardly flinched at the gunfire and explosions that interrupted the day. At one station, a woman showered election workers with handfuls of candy. At another, a veiled elderly woman kept repeating to grinning election workers, “God’s blessings on you.” Across town, three laughing Iraqi soldiers carried an elderly man, in his wheelchair, for two blocks to an elementary school and inside the polling station, where he voted….
In the months after the election, many more would die, scores in just a few ensuing weeks. For a moment, the election had eclipsed the legacy of the occupation—those unintended consequences and unanticipated outcomes that were shaping what Iraq would be. But afterward, those forces of religious revival, growing militancy, and hardening sectarianism, underlined by grievance and a threat of even more strife, returned to the stage. Were they transient or permanent? I didn’t know….I leave this place with thoughts of thwarted ambitions, of the failure of occupation, of a grim future inherited by men with guns and the culture they bring. But there is also a resilient hope among Iraqis, a tenacious refusal to surrender their country to the forces of violence and chaos. Their voice in the election was their verdict: they would still have a say in their destiny.
Excerpted from Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War by Anthony Shadid. Copyright © 2005, 2006 by Anthony Shadid. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.